Archimedes' Feet

This article is a response to the #StrategyAndEthics series, which asked a group of academics and national security professionals to provide their thoughts on the confluence of ethical considerations, the development of strategy, and the conduct of war. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.

“At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers


Archimedes was right; foundations matter.[1] Minor problems rarely become better by expanding them, no matter how long a lever or what type of fulcrum one uses. At the strategic level, the inherent tension at the intersection of morality and ethics on one hand versus policy and strategy on the other mirrors the same tension at the tactical and even individual level. The common fault is that moral and ethical arguments discussed in ethics education (to include professional military ethics education) and in real world scenarios attempt to restrict the argument exclusively to the intellectual dimension. This approach fails because it is an argument without a solid foundation. Since many of these academic opinions seep into political discourse, this failure is then magnified when expanded to state level interests on the international stage. To explain this, I will first describe the dimensions of an individual, then build to show how a misapplication of these attributes leads to an inability to accurately apply ethics to strategy.

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by François Perrier (Wikimedia)

Starting small, there are numerous models to depict the makeup of a person. Examples include the Eight Dimensions of Wellness, the Elements of Wellness, the Wellness Wheel, and for the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness: the Five Dimensions of Strength. With some variation and expansion in these models, the dimensions are: social, physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.

Now, certainly these dimensions interact with one another. The act of prayer may cause someone to feel good. Learning first aid would help in performing physical assistance to a child who broke their arm. Generally speaking, a physically fit individual with a high intellect, emotional balance, and good character, would make a charming social friend. But a component of each dimension does not interact with the others. You can’t just think yourself to a faster marathon time, you have to go out and exercise. You can’t just bench press your way to a better friendship, you need to spend time with the other person. “Hoping” to get smarter or richer or nicer, by itself, rarely yields results. As obvious as these statements are, the same mistakes are consistently made in regards to morality and ethics on a national stage. As Kenneth Waltz wrote for his second image of international relations, “Men make states and states make men.” It stands to reason that what happens at the individual level becomes magnified at the state level.[2]

Modern and Not So Modern Attempts

We rarely discuss the spiritual foundation of our American moral system in ethics education, leaving it unspoken and by and large axiomatic from our culture. Instead, what we dither over is the intellectual construct on which to use, with no connection to a foundation, with a line of argument that divides roughly into two main groups. The first group comes from philosophers who debate over deontology, virtue ethics, or utilitarianism. Some ethicists like David Fisher attempt to combine these into something he terms “Virtuous Consequentialism.”[3] By doing so, modern ethicists attempt to keep the conversation solely in one place, the intellectual dimension. Fisher, as an example, is emphatic on this point and states, “Morality is a rational activity.”[4] But the problem is always the same. Whose morality?

“Morality is a rational activity.”

The second group are those versed in political science theory and the realism versus liberalism divide. But they don’t seem to have ethically satisfactory answers with a firm, stated foundation either. Thucydides spoke of “fear, honor, and interest,” armies gaining access to cities “by treachery,” and the famous Melian Dialogue that the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must. Is this good or bad? To bring it forward to our day, was this not the approach taken by the Russians in their annexation of Crimea? Could you not make an argument that using Thucydides as your measuring stick of strategically sound ethical behavior, the Russians did nothing wrong? Would you be better off using Plato, Socrates, Kant, or Kierkegaard? I think not. The main problem doesn’t lie in the rational construct, but somewhere deeper.

With all due respect to Fisher, rationality alone has not and cannot provide us the answers we seek.

For an extreme example, ask academics why rape is wrong. In professional military ethics education, the responses are often identical, with arguments of illegality or proper conduct. Sometimes they’ll appeal to societal norms, which is typically where civilian scholars and professors start their argument. But neither group ever gets at the heart of what was asked; why it is wrong. The question of ethics is not strictly intellectual. This is not to say that logic and reason cannot be applied, but you cannot use mathematics, chemistry, physics, or a host of other sciences to prove that killing a combatant or a non-combatant (whether in an act of rage, fear, or the euphemism of “collateral damage”) is correct or “good.” There is no computational formula of “6x + 7y = kill a terrorist with a Hellfire missile via drone.” With all due respect to Fisher, rationality alone has not and cannot provide us the answers we seek.

The Exorcism of Religion

The question of ethics is spiritual. Once we recognize this shift, teaching and executing ethics at the strategic level—or any level, really—actually becomes far more difficult.[5] But, because the question of ethics is spiritual, it can be deemed too difficult, and therefore marginalized. One central reason is that our individual spiritual beliefs are mainly informed by established religion and then often expressed in connection to that religion. Thus, an individual’s spirituality habitually links to, and is often interwoven in, an established religious institution. A student or a government employee may have the freedom to talk about their personal spiritual beliefs without much cause for concern. However, a professor, high ranking government official, or military instructor is seen as having the voice of a public institution. Therefore, speaking in a public college, military school, or government office of the religious underpinnings of our ethical culture is somehow transmogrified into the equivalent of proselytizing. This has profound impact on how we approach strategic thought. However, to steal a thought from Dr. Everett Dolman: a tactician is taught, but an ethicist becomes.[6]

...a tactician is taught, but an ethicist becomes.

For example, by crippling our discussions of ethics through the elimination of discourse on its spiritual nature, Just War Theory is hindered. Scholars and practitioners debate about the purely intellectual application and interpretation of jus in bello, which as has been accurately noted as having roots from Aquinas and Augustine, but shortchange the underlying beliefs of those men, namely Christianity.[7] And, while most of these hamstrung arguments are analytically sterile, their practical application is carried out by real men and women who must execute policy at the point of impact. Think of the members of the military; where do you want these individuals and their leaders to “become,” in a classroom or on the battlefield? Have we, through a lack of grappling with this spiritual foundation, induced cognitive dissonance in our troops?[8]

Or, take the example of Omar Mateen who killed or wounded over 100 people at the gay night club, Pulse, in Orlando earlier this year. Does it make sense to talk about the motivations of his actions from a strictly intellectual lens, asking if he was operating under the ethics of utilitarianism or of Kant? Or, would it be proper to discuss his spiritual underpinning, perhaps even how his religion did or did not contribute to his actions? It wasn’t Mateen’s intellectual construct of ethics or his individual spiritual nuances that made national and international headlines. President-elect Donald Trump did not call for a ban on followers of Fisher’s Virtuous Consequentialism, but rather on one religion’s immigrants. Yet how can we possibly have a full and informed debate over either Mateen’s or Trump’s statements and actions while staying strictly in the intellectual dimension? We cannot and as this example shows, this has strong implications for strategy.

For those that believe spirituality, to include religion, should have no seat at the table when discussing strategic moral choices, must at the very least recognize that many do not share this view. Samuel Huntington predicted a great clash of civilizations, in large part due to religious motivation and incompatibility. Peter Berger argued that the world would get more secular over time and religion would diminish. Yet years later he rejected his own secularization thesis and imagined a world in which religion would play even more of a role.

Where do we stand?

“Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth," (Wikimedia)

The argument here is not that ethics must be taught only by priests, shamans, or pastors and include recitations of the Nicene Creed, the five pillars of Islam, or two-week courses in the Hindu Dharma. Nor is it a dismissal of the academic thought of modern ethicists. What it does assert though is that ethics is not just intellectual in its dimension, but spiritual, and that the spiritual dimension is the foundation, and thus primary dimension where discussion should begin. If ethics, morality, or strategy were a purely intellectual endeavor, then all we would need is an algorithm to do it effectively. But that is not how ethics works. Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.” I offer this rejoinder to those pondering ethics and strategy: identify the foundation of your ethics and I’ll write your strategy. Wise men should build their houses upon rock.

Chris Ellis is an officer in the United States Army. He has broad deployed experience including missions to Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. He holds a bachelor degree from the University of Washington, and master's degrees from the University of Kansas, the Command and General Staff College, and the School of Advanced Military Studies. His professional writing interests include ethics, science, and disaster preparedness. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Archimedes of Syracuse (Famous Inventors)


[1] Archimedes (1953).  The Works of Archimedes with the Method of Archimedes.  Edited by T.L. Heath. Dover Publications. XIX.

[2] Waltz, K. (2001).  Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis. Columbia University Press. 230.

[3] Fisher, D. (2011).  Morality and War: Can War be Just in the Twenty-First Century. Oxford University Press. 135.

[4] Ibid, 134.

[5] In a future paper, I hope to expound upon these difficulties and counter-arguments in general to my assertions.

[6] Dolman, E. (2004).  Pure Strategy: Power and Principle in the Space and Information Age. Routledge.

[7] For examples of the paucity of spiritual or religious discussion in comparison to intellectual arguments and counterarguments, see Brian Orend’s The Morality of War (2006, Broadview Press), Louis Pojman’s and James Fieser’s Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (2012, Wadsworth, Cengage Learning), or Dean Geuras’ and Charles Garofalo’s Practical Ethics in Public Administration (2005, Management Concepts).  All three of these are or were used in master’s level college ethics courses.

[8] I’ve often pondered whether the military’s lack of in-depth ethics training has any correlation with incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder.  I’m thinking of Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell or Medal of Honor winner Dakota Meyer as two of the more famous examples of anecdotal evidence.